Since its first performance on 19 March, The Show Must Go Online has become a permanent fixture. To the delight of us regulars, this week’s production of Richard III was manned by an allstar cast, with actors from previous productions being invited back to either reprise a role from the Henry VI trilogy or take on an entirely new character. After the Shakespeare birthday bloodfest that was last week’s Titus Andronicus, this definitely felt like the festivities had been extended, and there was a palpable sense of excitement.
I think I must have mentioned about a zillion times that Richard III is my favourite history play, even though it very likely does a complete disservice to the man himself. The combination of Richard’s sarcastic humour, shameless manipulation, and ruthless behaviour makes for a gripping play; the way he conspires with the audience is exciting and makes you feel a part of it – plus there are some great lines in there.
Also returning this week to introduce the play was Ben Crystal, stepping in when Carlos & Mercedes from Shakespeare Argentina were no longer able to join. He began by looking at the performance history of the play, including a possibly apocryphal story about legendary actor David Garrick – the theatrical well-wishing of “break a leg!” may have come from the time that Garrick was starring in Richard III and didn’t realise that he had broken his leg… Laurence Olivier, of course, has become synonymous with the role, but apparently he suffered from terrible stage fright and walked onto the stage not wholly sure what approach he was going to take; this performance was pastiched in Kenneth Branagh’s In The Bleak Midwinter, and “haunted” Anthony Sher when he took on the role for the RSC. Going by this, you can understand why it feels like the “part is transcending culture”, making Richard III the character more well-known than Richard III the play. Crystal highlighted the wooing of Lady Anne for its brilliance, and also suggested watching how Buckingham’s conscience takes hold of him – there is a lot to enjoy in this play.
One thing to bear in mind is that in real life the events depicted in this play took place (or didn’t) between around 1471 & 1485, though it feels a lot swifter in the play. It picks up where the Henry VI trilogy left off, with Edward IV taking back his place on the throne; Richard, however, has only just started putting his schemes into place, naming his brother George (Duke of Clarence) as his first target – before wooing Prince Edward of Lancaster’s widow, the Lady Anne, as she mourns her late husband as well as her father-in-law, Henry VI. The atmosphere at court is far from friendly, as factions still remain – and this is not helped at all by the reappearance of the vengeful Queen Margaret, who sets out prophecies & curses against all who wronged her and her family. Before Edward changes his mind, Richard commissions two murderers to take care of Clarence (who end up drowning him in a butt of Malmsey wine). The news of his brother’s death tips an already ill King Edward over the edge and he also dies, removing one more obstacle for Richard and placing his young son, Edward V, on the throne. Realising that his nephews are a lot more intelligent than he first thought, Richard seeks to undermine their position by spreading rumours about their illegitimacy, which would leave him as the one true heir to the throne…
This week’s game was right up my street: collect the best Richard burns! Given how Shakespeare wanted to portray his central character, there are plenty to choose from throughout the play (with a lot of canine references), but I think Queen Margaret’s tirade in Act 1 Scene 3 (in response to him calling her “thou hateful, withered hag!”) has to be my favourite:
Thou elvish-marked, abortive, rooting hog,
Thou that wast sealed in thy nativity
The slave of nature and the son of hell,
Thou slander of thy heavy mother’s womb,
Thou loathèd issue of thy father’s loins,
Thou rag of honor, thou detested…
They are so vivid, so effortlessly spiteful – and all Richard can do in response is interrupt her. Margaret’s later description of him as a “bottled spider” is similarly evocative, conjuring up an image of his physicality and his nature in one fell swoop.
When this project began, it was kind of inconceivable that it would be possible to elevate these plays from mere readings to pretty much full-blown productions – and that it would be possible to portray things like fights and drownings at all, let alone well. But, seven weeks in, Richard III was brought to startling life by The Show Must Go Online’s brilliant team. Yarit Dor & Enric Ortuno have been excellent (& ever-present) additions since week two, and the Malmsey drowning has to go down as my favourite stunt yet. To pull it off is great in itself, but for the other actors in the scene to join in so convincingly really took it to another level.
Talking of the cast… What a cast! It really was exciting to see familiar faces back (most of whom I’ve only seen through this project – so I’ve clearly become very quickly attached), and I was particularly pleased that Ashley Byam reprised his performance of Richard for this play after impressing in Henry VI, part three. In that play we only got a taste of what his Richard was like, so it was really satisfying to see the whole picture; as an audience member this medium is great for the moments in which Richard conspires with you, as it feels direct and incredibly intimate – and all the more sinister for it.
I wish I could mention everyone, as the whole cast was absolutely on fire – something very special happened with this particular production, and it was a complete & utter joy to see the cast at work. I have to single out Luke Barton for helping to lighten the mood at key moments as a buffoonish Hastings, as well as Lucy Aarden’s disillusioned yet sassy Lady Anne, the return of The Many Faces of Meg Hodgson, and the super strong combination of Kristin Atherton & Wendy Morgan as Elizabeth & Margaret. The Bohemian Rhapsody inspired ghosts scene was also terrific.
Whilst it is great to get more & more people involved in the project and seeing new faces on our screens, I hope we continue to see some returning individuals (& maybe another ‘allstars’ production) as it definitely made this week’s feel like something of an event. And what a play for it to land on! I don’t think I’ve ever seen a bad production of Richard III, but this is definitely up there with the best of them. Especially with the sneaky hint at tomorrow’s special Star Wars Day event in Act 3 Scene 7…
Next week: The Comedy of Errors